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Summit County Should Consider Breaking Up New Transportation Taxes on November’s Ballot

As we know, last fall’s Park City School Board bond initiative failed. The public said NO to the school district proposal. Yet, did the district need to have a complete failure? No.

What would have generated enough public support to give the school board and district much of what they wanted? Imagine if instead of one large $56 million dollar bond, the school district would have had a bond to rebuild Treasure Mountain, a bond for adding on to the high school for 9th grade, a bond for the 5/6 school at Ecker and a bond for upgraded athletic facilities.

The public would have likely voted to rebuild Treasure Mountain. The public would have also likely voted to expand the high school. There is even a slim chance the people would have voted for the 5/6 school at Ecker. The district may not have gotten everything they wanted, but they would have got the important things.

Moving from the past to the future, it’s likely this November the public will be asked again to vote on tax increases. This time it is likely Summit County will propose at least two taxes increases for fixing our transportation problems. The county has been discussing implementing both a 0.25% “County Option sales and Use Tax for Transportation” and another 0.25% “County, City, or Town Option Sales and Use Tax to Fund a System for Public Transit.” Each tax would raise about $4.1 million per year (total of about $8 million) and would have to be approved by voters during this year’s election.

In an interview last Thursday on KPCW, County Council person Claudia McMullin and KPCW’s Leslie Thatcher were discussing the possible tax increase. According to the interview, Summit County road maintenance is now annually underfunded by between $500,000 and $1 million. Ms Thatcher asked whether that meant we would only need to implement something like a 0.08% tax increase to cover this shortfall. Ms McMullin replied that there are so many other projects that need to be done as well.

When I heard that comment from Ms McMullin (she is right, there are a lot of potential projects), it reminded me of the school bond. The similarities are that there are a lot of potential things that could be done, but the public is likely only going to support some of those.

So a question to ask is, could the county break up the tax increases into smaller portions and have the public vote individually on those? Instead of coming up with a laundry list of items these taxes may be used for then TRYING TO SELL THE COMMUNITY on “fixing transportation” could they instead put multiple taxes on the ballot that would add up to the 0.5% total of the two potential taxes? Perhaps they could put a 0.065% tax increase to fund ongoing maintenance of our roads. Then they could put 0.014% tax increase for funding increased frequency of bus service. A Kimball bus circulator tax could be put on the ballot at 0.06%. Maybe a tax for a park and rides (the turnout by Ecker and/or the land by Jeremy Ranch Elementary, then one by the Home Depot, etc.) could be put on the ballot at around 0.15%

We’ve recently heard through citizen surveys that people want solutions to traffic. Well, let them confirm that by voting with their pocketbook. More importantly, let the community not just vote for “fixing transportation” but for individual ideas. We’d probably learn that 90% of voters have no problem in keeping their roads updated. We’d then learn whether people thought increased bus frequency made sense. We’d also learn about the public interest in park and rides. It would be a very tactical way of looking at issues.

It would also enable the county to have very tactical messages. On the repairs and maintenance, they could cite their statistics that it costs many times more to replace a road than to maintain it. On bus frequency they could tell the public that the reason people don’t ride buses is because they come every half hour and if we bring that down to 7 to 15 minutes, it will increase the number of riders by X and will take Y number of cars off the road.

It also would allow the county to sell the message that they have watched what happened recently, they have listened, and want to ensure they give the public the chance to choose.

Of course there are a couple of potential problems with this. First, is it even possible to break up tax increases on the ballot? From the language of the two laws that enable these tax increases, one says the body “may impose a sales and use tax UP TO 0.25%.” The other says they can impose one of 0.25%. So, it may not even be possible, legally.

Second, I would guess most consultants skilled in putting bonds and taxes on a ballot would call this idea crazy. They would likely say to put as few items on the ballot as possible and hope that the public will “just vote for transportation.” Of course experts told the school district that they should include something with athletics on last year’s bond because people don’t vote for education, they vote for sports. We all know how that worked out.

If the county decides to put transportation taxes on the ballot, is dividing up the taxes a crazy idea? Perhaps. Is it one of the best ways to really know if the public is behind the county’s vision of transportation? Most certainly.


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